Once in a great while, someone writes album liner notes so priceless that they scream to be quoted. Here’s Michael Lewanski offering some background for Ben Melsky‘s album New Works for Harp with his group Ensemble Dal Niente:
“There might be many things that strike you as odd about the idea of a new music harp album…the first is that there’s very little, strictly speaking, that is less new than the harp… it seems that earliest exemplars are found in the Sumerian city of Ur, from the mid-fourth millennium BCE, perhaps before very many people had figured out how to write. You also find them, starting in 3000 BCE or so, painted on tombs of Egyptian pharaohs who apparently wanted enjoyable-but-not-too-noisy entertainment in the afterlife.) It doesn’t get much more basic than plucking a string; no wonder this instrument has been around for awhile.
Another has to do with the hackneyed cliché, found among both musicians and non-, of the harp as an instrument that is the ne plus ultra of the elegant and genteel, nudging in the direction of the effete and decadent. (Along those lines, one of its best known moments in the so-called “standard repertoire” is the cadenza in the Valse des fleurs from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker: a work titled in a language foreign to the composer for a piece in which a waltz (a genre inextricably bound up with the most ennui’d of aristocracy) is danced by flowers in the Land of Sweets. I challenge you to find me something more froo-froo in the history of art.”
Needless to say, Melsky’s record – streaming at Bandcamp– is not exactly froo-froo. The first number is Tomás Gueglio‘s brief After L’Addio, its muted glissandos punctuated by spare accents and percussive figures along with a handful of coy doppler riffs. The title references a Salvatore Sciarrino work for harp which attempts to maximize what little sustain the instrument can deliver. Steadily plucked close harmonies and deliciously subtle overtones dominate the diptych’s second half, Felt For Harp.
Emma Hospelhorn joins Melsky for a duo piece, Alican Çamci’s staggeredly syncopated, spacious Perde for Bass Flute and Harp, which with the flutist basically humming through her instrument much of the time is as playful as it is distantly disquieting. An alternate title for this increasingly magical, microtonally-spiced tableau could be Sonata for Fly and Music Box.
Another duo work, Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise features guitarist Jesse Langen and lots of extended technique, with plenty of whirry noise along with the spare, chiming interplay.
A Wang Lu shout-out to Christian Wolff contrasts Melsky’s slo-mo, acerbically circular phrases with Katie Schoepflin Jimoh’s alternately hazy and fluttery clarinet. The album’s longest, funniest and best number is Igor Santos‘ Anima. Percussionist Kyle Flens adds warpy. singing bowl-like textures and all sorts of quasi-vocalized buffoonery, going back and forth with Melsky’s wry whistles and peek-a-book moments. As cartoon music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this.
With its sudden swells and triumphantly gritty flourishes contrasting with moments of silence, the album’s final number is Eliza Brown‘s On-dit (French for “they say”), soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett adding perhaps the album’s most terse, minimalistic contribution. This is a great late-night listen for people who like quiet, thoughtful music with an edge.